Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Potatoes

I caught an episode of "Star Gate" on the Sci-Fi channel while doing my hour on the treadmill. It had closed-captioning, so I could read it whilst listening to my high-energy punk/new-wave soundtrack on headphones, that keeps me all pumped.

And it had as its central plot element, a classic dilemma.

The explorers are on a primitive planet, with tribespeople that seem, not coincidentally, to be practicing some harsh, repressive system of laws that seem pseudo-Islamic. And the daughter of the big, nasty chief is going to be stoned to death for dishonoring the tribe by not wanting to be in some arranged marriage or something.

Now, the Star Gate people could go in and take her away to her true love from another tribe, but (there's always a catch) it will mean War! And this chieftan has the allegiance of 22 Tribes! And he takes no prisoners!

So they wonder, "do we save one life, when it will mean War and many others lost? Do we even have the right to intervene?"

It's an important question, that we're facing today.

But the screenwriters had the characters agonize over it for all of 2 seconds before coming up with a magical deus-ex-machina solution revolving around a non-lethal single combat, and our nomadic Romeo and Juliet go off happily into the sunset.

And the real question isn't really dealt with.

From a purely utilitarian point of view, the one life should be ignored to preserve the others that would be lost in taking action.

Heinlein, in Starship Troopers (the book, not the silly subversive [but oh-so-stylish] movie) presents the argument this way: why, when only a fool would risk losing 100 potatoes to save 1 potato, do the Troopers adhere to a Code in which no man is ever left behind, regardless of cost?

And the answer is, because Men are not Potatoes!

(And neither are women. Ha ha. Don't jump on me, it's Standard English; "for in Language, as in Life, the Male embraces the Female." [Winston Churchill?])

So clearly, yes, the moral position is to do the "right thing", save the girl, accept the risks from there -- and "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!"

Because Life is always Risk; the one Actual life saved is tangible, and the many Potential lives put at "risk" in the process are just part of the normal Deal of Living -- I mean, what, are you going to be able to live forever if you avoid this one risk?

Is your miserable, meaningless life so precious that extending it by some relatively short, finite time is worth any degradation? That point of view will lead you directly into bondage and subjugation by the Strong and Merciless. Bud the Repo Man, on the other hand, preferred to Die on his Feet than to Live on his Knees.

And are there not unanticipated risks that cut people down every day, like being unexpectedly run over by the proverbial bus? Anyone can die at any time for any reason (if late-night horror cinema has taught us anything), so just suddenly "knowing" about one particular risk hardly changes this equation!

The Needs of the One outweigh the Needs of the Many, if human life is considered extraordinarly precious and valuable, in a counter-intuitive result!

It's those who place some finite value on human life, that thus fall naturally into pure utilitarian calculations -- and this leads them to deeply anti-human results. Because if then something is Good for the Collective, then 49% percent of the people can be massacred with impunity by this philosophy!

And of course, that's exactly what happens.

But when a special sanctity is placed on human life, giving it essentially infinite value, then by the Cantorian arithmetic of infinities, losing a single life is an equally horrific tragedy as 100, both of infinite loss!

And that's why the Firefighters were heroes and not fools to charge into the Twin Towers.

And why cultural and moral relativism, that avoids intervening and judging by our standards, is nothing more than a dodge; the country that one is born into should have nothing to do with the value of that person's freedom and dignity and life!

The argument, "who are we to judge? What's then to stop them judging us?" is nothing but the ridiculous logic of the kindergarten, to the effect of "did you bring enough for everyone?"

Yeah, sure, let them judge. Let them do their worst. As if our forebearance was the only thing holding back the barbarian hordes.

It's been said there is a no less sentimental people than the Greek; the converse must be that there was no more sentimental a people than the Victorian British, and we would do well to recapture some of their self-confidence. The old anecdote is that when discovering the ancient traditional practice in India of suttee, in which widows were burned alive with their departed husbands, and told that that's just how things were done in India, the reply was "Well where we come from, we hang blokes like that!" And so the practice was abolished.

It has been noted elsewhere that today's "Political Correctness" is motivated by the desire to have a standard set of behaviors, necessary for all societies to function, but that is no longer tied to anything as backward as Religion. This leads however to today's new absurd "Cardinal Sin", and that is to Offend.

That seems to be the new "Right" people think they have: the Right to Not Be Offended -- or else they'll sue somebody, damnit!

As if!

But that's the topic of a future post...

Instead we have degenerated, in our striving to not offend, to the absurd point where, shortly before 9/11, I heard on some vapid CNN talk show in which they were discussing Gary Condit (remember him?) and the audience was weighing in, saying the mean old nasty Press should lay off him, because, you know, as one women so astonishingly put it,

"Jesus wasn't judgmental!"

Well Jesus H. Christ! I nearly fell over!

What a triumph of post-modernism, to deconstruct the Messiah into a non-judgmental being!

I refer briefly to Matthew 3:10-12, in which John the Baptist is speaking:

10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me [Jesus] is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:

12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.


So, what was that about "wheat" and "chaff" again? Hmmm?

We must embrace basic standards of human dignity, and we must spread them; the alternative is to accept Evil by "holding up the mask".


4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Valeria : Do you want to live forever?
There is a double meaning to this line which at first may not be noticed. At first, it may seem that Valeria is just reckless and doesn't care if she dies since she doesn't expect to "live forever.
; but after Valeria is pierced with the snake arrow,she DOES indeed "live forever" in Valhalla, since she has died a noble death -- being bold and brave in battle and laying down her life for her friends.
-- goldenbough

10:14 AM, August 26, 2004  
Blogger Joseph said...

There's another application of transfinite mathematics to morals. If each human being is a Proper Class, then it's an error to regard a human being as a member of a set. That means any kind of collectivism becomes impossible.

10:46 PM, September 01, 2004  
Blogger RDS said...

goldenbough -- I love that line and think few people "get" the double meaning like you do!

Joseph -- that's great; I love it!

2:33 AM, September 02, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear sir,

I found your post randomly but wanted to say I thought it was very interesting and well written

2:55 PM, November 18, 2006  

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